OF ALL THE ROOMS in a school, the cafeteria is probably the least productive. After all, what do you get out of the school lunchroom besides mystery meat, food fights and idle lunchtime gossip?
For Kenny Allen, a stroll through the Eastern Tech cafeteria last Wednesday just might have been the first step toward a college education and a chance to play football at the next level to boot.
Allen, a senior halfback at Dundalk, and about 100 or so of his fellow area football players took part in a career fair at Eastern Tech designed to link high school players with college coaches.
The 5-foot-7, 165-pound Allen said he wasn't necessarily looking for grandiose promises of a starting role or playing time, but rather a sense that "somebody like me can come in and maybe walk on and try out. I'm not the biggest guy, but I still have an equal opportunity like everybody else."
The fair, the second Eastern Tech has offered in successive years, was about small guys, literally and figuratively, with smaller schools from Division I-AA like Towson and Georgetown as well as Franklin and Marshall, Kings College and Salisbury State from Division III.
Larry Hall and his football staff sent out invitations to 80 area high schools, private and public, as well as to about 40 colleges. Attendance was down a bit from last year, in part, Hall said, because Baltimore County schools closed early because of the high winds that moved through the area Wednesday.
The high schools were instructed to have their players prepare a resume and highlight tape for the college coaches to watch. And the kids got the message, some arriving with as many as 10 tapes to hand to coaches. One industrious player and his dad even burned his highlights onto a DVD.
Kevin Berger, an assistant coach at Ursinus in Pennsylvania, said his colleagues likely would watch all of the tapes carefully, but concedes that they won't see what they'd like to see, namely the kids failing or at least missing tackles.
"That's part of the problem with highlight tapes," Berger said. "You can cut and paste and kind of make it appear the way you want. But what gets troublesome in college is that guy lining up across from you. While you were the man at your high school, he was the man at his high school, too. It's just a matter of everybody in college football is all-everything, all-league, all-conference, all-state. It all adds up after a while."
Still, Berger said his school, which was absent from last year's fair, expects to reap a reward from attending.
"We've noticed that the teams that we play, especially the McDaniels of the world, have quite a number of good players from the Baltimore area, especially from Eastern Tech," Berger said. "Their tailback is from here. We'd be interested in having the same caliber of players; hence, we're here now."
To be sure, there were no Division I-A colleges present, because those schools likely have identified high school underclassmen they're interested in and probably would not be interested in kids who showed up last week. This was a night for "tweeners," players who are not quite fast enough or big enough for the Atlantic Coast Conference, but could get a decent shot in another not-quite-so-known place.
"Sometimes, a senior may blossom, and this seems to be a nice way to present themselves to somebody and get a chance to do something that they might not have gotten before because they weren't that all-star junior, but as a senior, they have gotten better. And as long as they've got the grades, that's always a big factor," said Larry Hall, Eastern Tech's athletic director.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the evening was the frank discussion of grades and academic progress. Discussions centered as much, if not more, on a student's grade point average as his 40-yard dash time.
"I think they understand now the importance of academics," said Dundalk football coach David Hall. "Now they know the SAT counts. It matters. You can't start in your senior year. You'd better start with your freshman English class. It would be good if we could do something with freshmen and sophomores who show potential to play at the collegiate level."